By: Kirti Sharma, Research Analyst, GSDN
The QSD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), commonly known as the QUAD, and ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) are two important alliances which have a direct bearing on the Indo-Pacific Region. The beginning of QUAD in 2007 with the strategic interest of the US, India, Australia, and Japan to balance the natural calamity of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean and its catastrophic aftermath. One of the deadliest natural disasters in history took more than two lakh lives along with the destruction of the economies creating a havoc situation around the affected countries. A number of programs and humanitarian responses were launched by the navies of Australia, Japan, and India along with the US providing the base for the operation from Indonesia to Madagascar. With the dynamic coupling of freedom and prosperity, the idea of QUAD was resurrected by the former Prime Minister of Japan Abe when he visited India in 2007 with picturesque boundaries of ‘broader Asia.’
In the continuation of security cooperation with swirling activities, the QUAD in 2008 was relinquished in itself with the blurry face of extremely negative reaction from China in the aftermath of the reaction against the inclusion of regional countries to sign up for their vision and approach. However, the reactivation of QUAD, in 2017, brought a series of strategic meetings with the vision of structural realism as brought by Kenneth Waltz vide areas of cooperation ranging from diplomatic ties, maritime connectivity and developmental assistance to infrastructure, cyber security, and people-to-people connect. With the tangible objective of QUAD to advance a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region, the identity is strengthening with discernible challenges of China’s geopolitical interests along with negation of letting other countries become the geographical hegemon of the Indo-pacific cum South East Asian region.
Whereas, in the twentieth century, after the two world wars when the world was divided into two halves of capitalism and communism backed by the US and USSR respectively, Asia had little role to play in world politics, despite various dimensions of groupings like Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) which was the voice of global south. It was the culmination of this process, Asia did not offer much, nor did the West heeded it, where the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) came into existence in 1967 with ten founding members. The promotion of regional cooperation in Southeast Asia in the spirit of equality, partnership, and prosperity was envisioned and culminated in the Bangkok declaration of August 08, 1967 to achieve considerable results in the economic field, for instance, high economic growth, poverty alleviation, substantial trade facilitation and two-way investment flows keeping liberalization measures intact in.
Since the beginning, the ASEAN states strived for a “balance” between China and India. Although member states were aware of the Chinese presence in their vicinity, they never showcased this point openly and gave due recognition and importance to China, while simultaneously engaging with India pragmatically. This is often called as “ASEAN way” of dealing with the two most powerful nations in its backyard. Over the years, the gradual expansion of the organization was recognizable, as other countries of the region (Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam) became members of it. Southeast Asia represents the world’s third-largest population market along with fifth-largest economy. Since, Southeast Asia is the heart of the Indo-Pacific, geographically, between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Consequently, all major players (the United States, China, India, Japan, and Russia) engaged in shaping the strategic contestation in a vast region stretching from East Africa to the South Pacific. ASEAN seeks to encourage multilateralism by playing a central role as ASEAN-led mechanisms. Nonetheless, while achieving the goals there exists a myriad of obstacles and impediments to ASEAN’s regional strategic trajectories.
Recognizing the statement of amalgamation as a consequence of external factors and internal disturbances
The most serious charge of failure pertains to the weakening of institutions and politicization of intelligence. The shifting of regional supply chains, the fulcrum of ASEAN’s vision, is a further matter of concern that could do more harm to ASEAN countries to do any good. China has always been ASEAN’s imperative economic partner.
Logistic infrastructure and skilled labor give a compelling advantage to ASEAN countries which renders a profound opportunity to the domestic market of ASEAN countries. For instance, if QUAD countries established their secondary sector bases in ASEAN countries, the basic requirements of manufacturing, still, will be coming from none other than China. Even though small economic assistance can be provided by other non-member states as well to a larger extent it is non-undependable to China. Likewise, QUAD countries cannot make assumptions about the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) without recognizing ASEAN’s position and role as outlined in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.
Without unity, the ASEAN’s centrality loses much of its credibility, a dynamic regional grouping that aims to promote economic and security cooperation among its ten members is losing its credibility due to an ongoing geopolitical shift in the unity among the members due to an underlying not-to-ignore China and USA proxy war factor. Likewise, Malaysia and Indonesia are not in favor of the US offering nuclear submarines to Australia. The presence of various developments led by Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS) is equally alarming for many ASEAN member states due to strategic interests. The recent ASEAN nine-member summit started without Myanmar’s presence, is again an internal complication that this grouping is facing which might flip the possible geopolitical interests.
Today, ASEAN is divided where seven out of ten members incline towards China’s plate to eradicate their starving disposition according to their requirements. It will be very difficult to define which side ASEAN is going to take either China or the US but as we discussed earlier the ‘balancing’ factor is what ASEAN member states strategic interest lies in.
Vision and Challenges
Collision between QUAD members and China, in and around Southeast Asia, is a concern for ASEAN nations. Therefore, there are numerous challenges for ASEAN and QUAD in securing a conducive environment for integrated measures. The first and foremost is the rising power factor in the region, which is none other than China, as how to get China engaged with Southeast Asia and Indo-Pacific grouping QUAD for the advancement of logistic supply chains in the region.
Another challenge is the increasing nature of institutionalisation of the QUAD which might take a u-turn to unbalance ASEAN centrality. Earlier, Indonesia saw QUAD as a potential threat coalition as an ‘outsider’ power to hinder sides of ASEAN member states. “Formalisation of structure” as proposed by US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun in a diplomatic summit posed an invitation for the confluence of ASEAN and QUAD architecture. Again, it’s a complete 180-flipping position. However, with the magnitude of the future prospects, there lies another challenge as to how to avoid regional technological fragmentation of so-called “choosing sides” with major powers along the narrow lines of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS).
The escalation of trade and geopolitical tension across the region plays a critical function in the Indo-Pacific region. Whereas soft balancing of ASEAN’s strategy brings forth the presence of the US in the region, while the continuation of engagement with China at various levels.
ASEAN has fundamental niches to attract the support of both, China and QUAD members for reaffirmation of ASEAN centrality. William TR Fox’s vision of a superpower lies in their wish to act in their own way but China as a major power cannot envision a BRI project without the involvement of Southeast Asia. On the same terms, QUAD cannot realize IPS without executing reaffirming terms with ASEAN. Therefore, to access BRI and IPS, ASEAN’s active presence is much required through which it can sail the boat without compromising its geopolitical interests.
Synonymity of ASEAN and QUAD with Indian lens
India recognized the importance of ASEAN in Asia in terms of trade and diplomacy and in world politics. This was substantiated by the fact that the economies of ASEAN countries along with China, Japan, and India played a dominant role in the 1990s and the trend continues to this day as well. The recent QUAD summit held in Japan on 22nd May, put forth productive dialogue in the development of the Indo-Pacific with shared democratic values and strategic interests. However, the execution of realistic principles is what these dialogues depend upon, nonetheless, reiteration of principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and peaceful resolution of disputes.
But, India has to be very cautious of every step otherwise her geopolitical position can be an advantage for the US and China backed as a sandwich between two proxies. On the other side of diplomatic relations India and ASEAN hold a significant relationship since their participation in various forms of summits. In the recent stagnant ocean of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) where bilateral issues are much discernible among the member states, India has potential opportunities to explore in Southeast Asia. Simultaneously, India as a QUAD member renders a balanced vision which was inculcated in the recent ASEAN-India Summit held in Jakarta of a 12-point proposal from promoting multi-modal connectivity, mission LiFE to cyber security, and digital public infrastructure. Over the years, India has navigated the dynamicity of QUAD and ASEAN with the strategic presence of its rival China and its ruthless aggression. While rectifying internal differences and developing common programs for India and ASEAN, newer areas have been recognized such as cyber, financial, and maritime security domains. To build on the comprehensive strategic partnership between India and ASEAN, the dynamics of the Indo-Pacific, convergence between the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”(AOIP), and India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative have to make their practical footing.
In the furtherance of peaceful coexistence, while maintaining diplomatic relations with other states without compromising on the national interest of their nations, there is a queue of connections that can be discussed here. ASEAN and QUAD had various options to consider without giving a thought to the pseudo-realistic idea of the amalgamation of two groupings. First, ASEAN and QUAD can try to limit the impact of political issues on the economic front while realizing the inner strength of their respective groupings. ASEAN community to strengthen ASEAN Economic Community to boost intra-regional trade and investment. Whereas, QUAD to reduce China’s domination in the region while focusing on intra-regional connectivity. Second, to avoid being caught between the QUAD and with dwindling position of the US and China in any dispute is imperative for ASEAN to seize the stability and prosperity of the region. In the Indo-Pacific region, ASEAN holds a central position both politically and geographically, therefore, inclusiveness and consensus building among the member states is highly crucial at this juncture of geopolitical uncertainty. This shared outlook also leans strongly towards a strong voice on critical issues related to diplomatic, and security concerns.
This map of navigating varied and complex relationships between QUAD and ASEAN is basically the rational choice approach by the actors of major powers as well as rising major powers among the region and across the globe. Lastly, the contextualization of geopolitical competition among state powers should be non-unbridled in nature to make a shift from repressing action towards active participation with wearing lens of ‘3S’ principles of statism, survival, and self-help.